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Racism and Whiteness: Bad Words We Have to Live With

May 12th, 2021 | 22 min read

By Matthew Loftus

Like anyone who has thought about the problem of race for more than five minutes, I find the topic of language and terminology vexing. Terms like racism, anti-blackness, ethnocentric, antiracist, white supremacy, whiteness, prejudice, (and now quite unfortunately) woke or anti-woke do a lot of work that perhaps they are not meant to do or cover overlapping territories that then get mapped onto our experiences and ideologies. In short, it’s a mess.

My goals in this essay are to briefly try to distinguish some of the terms that frequently mean very different things to people, differentiate between different kinds (and perhaps even degrees) of harm that racism causes, and put forward some central truths about race and history that I think can and should be universally accepted. I don’t expect everyone who reads this to agree with me, but I do hope that I can improve a very onerous debate that seems to be really setting people in the Church at odds with each other. I’m not an expert, but I think that we have to have mutual understanding such that even non-experts can talk about this stuff. There are many things I will not talk about, some of which are important (e.g. anti-Asian bias) and some of which I couldn’t care less about (e.g. the intellectual genealogy of Critical Race Theory).

Prejudice and Ethnocentricity: Universal and Enduring

It is a feature of human nature to prefer to be with people who are like you. There is nothing wrong with this very basic tendency; whether by age or ethnicity or language, like will naturally gravitate towards like whenever people interact. On a group level, shared history, culture, language, and familial ties allow for the intimacy from which care for one another emerges and by which our cooperative efforts succeed. Every family, clan, and nation tells themselves a story about who they are, and these stories (consciously or unconsciously) shape the way people think and act together. (For more on what I mean by “nations”, see here).[1]

The larger and more diverse the group of people, the more difficult such intimacy this becomes. A lack of mutual understanding inevitably brings conflict, and the only lower bound on what could be a wedge between people is the human imagination. One thinks of the Emo Philips’ joke about two people who find that they share the same religion, denomination, and sub-denomination… until they find one point of disagreement and start a brief Inquisition. A greater difference between two groups makes it easier to misunderstand and mistreat one another, but putting in the work to overcome those differences often brings a bigger social payoff, just as chemical reactions requiring more energy to initiate often produce a bigger bang.

Often people talk as if one’s “ethnic” or “national” (in the broad sense of the word “nation”) identity is a static thing, fixed from birth, when in fact over a long enough period of time peoples of all sort can mix, divide, and move around. Depending on one’s circumstances, the people on the other side of any border could be considered your neighbor, kin, friend, ally, or enemy. Whenever anyone gets to talking about the perils of diversity, they are just participating in this natural process by which human beings sort together for the sake of intimacy (or divide for the sake of ingroup advantage). Unpleasant as it is to certain sensibilities, this is a universal human phenomenon that is supported by some scientific evidence and applies just as much to gentrifying neighborhoods as it does to questions of immigration. Even people who think of themselves as open-minded, tolerant, and accepting will ignore a more easily perceptible difference (e.g. ethnicity or geographic origin) for a more enduring similarity (e.g. ideology or education).

So this is how people work: they like similar people and want to be around others like them. A certain amount of diversity is always tolerable, depending on the circumstances, but any house can also be divided. When one group of people gets to thinking that they are the best and the others can be discriminated against, stolen from, or killed, they get into the realm of prejudice and ethnocentricity.

The vices of prejudice and ethnocentricity are the straightforward direction that turns our natural tendency to be with others who are like us into sin. From time immemorial every tribe, clan, or nation around the world has used this to justify wicked behavior. Wealthy, educated Westerners may think that they have transcended this tendency, but the vast majority of those who say “All are welcome” would almost certainly move if every house on their block was suddenly occupied by poor, uneducated, non-Western people. (All may be welcome, but only if they don’t bring down property values or school!)

These sins lead to all sorts of “othering” interactions that may fall short of actual crimes but can still be hurtful. Stereotyping, joking, and even unwanted physical or social interactions are awkward at best and psychologically crippling or threatening at worst. The effect of these interactions is a function of the power held by different groups in society and the experiences that person who is being othered has had before. A South Asian in Uganda in the 1970s, a White German in Uganda in the 1990s, and a Black American in Mississippi in the 1960s all had the experience of being a “minority” in very different ways, some more threatening than others. We will return to this further on in this essay.

It is easy to find Christian discussions on the questions of prejudice and the ways in which Scripture speaks to and deals with ethnic strife. I see no need to recapitulate those here, except to say that there will always be a tension between centrifugal forces that push Christians out to the ends of the earth to proclaim the Gospel (after selling all they have and and “hating” their father and mother, as Jesus commands!) and the centripetal forces ordered in creation that command us to honor our fathers and mothers and love those most in need who are closest to us. Individual churches will inevitably grow around the trellis of our natural affinities for people of similar class or culture, but the fire of the Holy Spirit, if it is not quenched, will always be pushing those same churches to seek out and serve those who are strangers in the flesh (and, in my experience, most churches do this to varying degrees along class lines). This seeking and serving is difficult precisely because it contravenes our natural affinities, but to deny its moral weight on us is to put ourselves under the judgment of God.

White Supremacy and Racism: It’s a Bit More Complicated

It is straightforward to speak universally about prejudice and ethnocentricity. The specific case of race is a far more complicated one requiring a little bit of history. While enmity between people groups is a perpetual human phenomenon, “race” as we know it today is a more recent invention. As Europeans fanned across the globe to explore other lands, their encounters with other peoples led to a number of complex questions about how to relate to these peoples and their lands.

One of the most famous accounts we have of the beginning of something quite different from ordinary prejudice is from Gomes Eanes de Zurara, writing in the mid-1400s AD. Zurara observes human beings from all over Africa being cruelly separated from their families at a slave auction and feels what any other person would feel at watching such a brutal sight. Knowing that they are fellow “sons of Adam”, he prays that God will “put before the eyes of that miserable race some understanding of matters to come; that they may receive some consolation in the midst of their great sorrow.” He then notes that the children separated from their parents eventually became Christians.

As Willie James Jennings notes in his book The Christian Imagination:

Zurara asks God in this prayer to grant him access to the divine design to help him interpret this clear sign of God-ordained Portuguese preeminence over black flesh. He seeks from God the kind of interpretation that would ease his conscience and make the event unfolding in front of him more morally palatable. …

Zurara deploys a rhetorical strategy of containment, holding slave suffering inside a Christian story that will be recycled by countless theologians and intellectuals of every colonialist nation. The telos and the denouement of the event will be enacted as an order of salvation, an ordo salutis—African captivity leads to African salvation and to black bodies that show the disciplining power of the faith.

Zurara’s prayer is a prototypical one for the creation of race. Grouping together perhaps dozens of different peoples representing different nations into one category and at the same time declaring the dark-skinned peoples so ugly that they seem to represent “images of a lower hemisphere,” Zurara finds a theological justification to stifle the otherwise unbearable conflict between his faith or even his basic humanity on the one hand and the horrific abuses taking place before his eyes on the other.

As the desire to explore and dominate other peoples grew in Europe, the philosophical, theological, scientific, and legal justifications for this dominance grew alongside it. In order to justify slavery, the inherent inequality of the enslaved peoples had to be established and the inherent superiority of the enslavers had to be reified. Everything from “The Curse of Ham” to skull-measuring pseudoscience was brought to bear on this problem. The result was the concept of race as we know it today; distinct nations and people groups were intellectually (and sometimes physically) mashed together into broader races, with whiteness at the top of the hierarchy and blackness at the bottom.[2] An incredible deal of theological and intellectual effort went into the project of justifying and realizing this hierarchy because the theft, murder, and displacement of people were so obviously and flagrantly in violation of the natural law in all our hearts and the divine law that all Christians have had revealed to them.

To think of oneself as “white” is not a natural phenomenon; “whiteness” is a trans-national identity unrelated to family, country, or heritage and specifically created to oppress peoples that whiteness groups into races through the ideology of white supremacy. Many dystopian stories require a generation of altering genetics based on greed and power before society is ravaged; the creation of the white racial identity and its attendant anti-blackness was a crime against nature of the same magnitude that endured for centuries.

The aforementioned dynamics of prejudice do not apply to racial tensions in a universal way because the process of racialization took the commonplace sins of ethnocentricity and supercharged them with the power of Western Civilization. This is not to say that Western Civilization (or the United States of America, for that matter) are inherently evil, but it sure gave a very evil guest a very prominent seat among its councilors for a very long time.

Others have commented on  the ways in which this disregard for the created order, by drawing out skin color as the most salient location of identity, was inseparable from the exploitative relationship Europeans had with God’s creation itself, the land and its animals, vegetables, and minerals.[3] Again, Jennings summarizes:

[T]he European vision saw these new lands as a system of potentialities, a mass of undeveloped, underdeveloped, unused, underutilized, misunderstood, not fully understood potentialities. Everything— from peoples and their bodies to plants and animals, from the ground and the sky —was subject to change, subjects for change, subjected to change. The significance of this transformation cannot be overstated. The earth itself was barred from being a constant signifier of identity. Europeans defined Africans and all others apart from the earth even as they separated them from their lands.

The central effect of the loss of the earth as an identity signifier was that native identities, tribal, communal, familial, and spatial, were constricted to simply their bodies, leaving behind the very ground that enables and facilitates the articulation of identity. The profound commodification of bodies that was New World slavery signifies an effect humankind has yet to reckon with fully — a distorted vision of creation.

When people have sought to protect themselves as white people, it has necessarily been at the cost of other races’ freedom and prosperity, from the colonial legal codes of Virginia that first used the word “white” to describe those who could be freed, to segregation academies that would rather shut down public school systems than allow white and black children to study together.

Whiteness was forged in evil to unify disparate peoples under a racial banner and create a racial caste system; since then it has only been used to concentrate privilege among that caste. There are far more dimensions to this than white people harming Black people, but any discussion of race gravitates to those poles because history continually finds many white people finding a way to rig the system for their benefit while Blacks find themselves at the bottom of the ladder.[4]

This is where the academic terminology of “whiteness” and “white supremacy” draw their understanding from. Quite frankly, I have come to the conclusion that using these terms doesn’t help because they are so polarizing; people who cannot take a few minutes to learn about these terms foreclose on the possibility of meaningful engagement on the subject and unfortunately, that is a lot of otherwise persuadable people. Furthermore, even people who agree with the general concepts I’ve described find the promiscuous use of this language difficult to work with. Call my newfound apprehension for these terms a compromise with the devil if you like; I call it making crucial ideas intelligible and accessible for people who are still blinded by the Devil.[5]

The word “whiteness” is, in common use, an indelible and neutral marker of identity, and its negative use is threatening to people who reject the meaning it has acquired in academic texts and from there flowed out to the general public. The phrase “white supremacy” is associated with burning crosses and bombing churches; its association with less dramatic, even downright pedestrian, actions feels jarring to anyone who is not already schooled in the discourse. “Anti-blackness” is far more specific and useful for describing the legal, economic, and cultural harms against Black people, but it doesn’t really cover everything we’re talking about. “Racism” is often taken too broadly and it is almost certainly applicable in contexts besides the last few centuries of Western history.[6] Call it what you want; in the spirit of Francis Spufford’s “HPtFtU”, you could call it “atePaERO,” for “all the enduring powers and effects of racial oppression.”[7]

The enduring part is probably the most contentious point these days, which is why I think it is most important to talk about. The effects of racial discrimination against Black Americans endures both in active discriminatory attitudes and practices as well as the legacy effects of previous injustices.

To say that it is not enduring, one must say that the discriminatory attitudes and practices today are insignificant (they’re not) or infrequent (also not true). As far as legacy effects go, I have still never heard any argument that explains how historical practices like redlining are not relevant to today’s problems like the racial wealth gap. Thus, the segregation of races in America and the observable social, economic, and health inequities between races are not the natural result of racial differences, either: they are the uncorrected legacy of racial injustice and evidence of its ongoing power.

To say that the past several decades of America’s post-Civil Rights policies have reckoned with the previous centuries’ worth of injustice is like saying that a few months of alimony and child support will compensate for years of violent abuse in a marriage.

It is perhaps most useful to think of everything we have described so far as a “power” or “principality”, to use the terminology referred to frequently in the New Testament to describe the invisible, demonic forces that sway us. As such, this power reflects both conscious hatred and well-intentioned harms, explicit laws and guided by unconscious biases.[8] It draws power from the actions that people take in its maleficent service, but it also sways people who live in its realm the way that, say, the evils of living in a world where pornography and abortion have been institutionalized can subtly undermine even those who want to resist them and dominate those who are not on guard against them. Like Zurara watching families being separated and drying his tears with ruminations on God’s inscrutable councils, today we have people who watch a video of someone being murdered and speculate that it was their fault for being shot in the back. As my friend Bradford Davis has said, “videos can’t cure blindness.”

This power certainly took a hit when its primary legal weapons were disarmed in 1865 and 1964, but the harm done to individuals and families before then was not ameliorated by the change to our legal regime. Nor did the Civil Rights Act, the transformation of the American consciousness to reject explicitly racist appeals in the public square, or the small handful of initiatives designed for such amelioration prevent racism from continuing to exercise demonic influence.

To deny this ongoing power and then kvetch about “race relations” is like complaining about declining church attendance and deny that the Enlightenment ever happened. Placing people of different races on equal sides in negotiations about “racial reconciliation” and then complaining whenever people of color seek redress for historical injustices makes a mockery of history. Furthermore, if you believe that an evil spiritual dominion lasting for centuries could be vanquished with some legislation, I have some very bad news for you about the future of marriage and life in America.

To take this understanding of historic and ongoing racial injustice seriously includes not using it exclusively; the promise of “intersectionality” seems to be that we could critically analyze different situations and speak to the presence of racial harm in them.[9] In practice, it just seems like more and more people are blaming everything they don’t like on white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, homophobia, colonialism, and countless other things like a kid in a 7-11 trying to mix all the Slurpee flavors together.

All sides of the debate also neglect the very basic fact that there can be multiple loci of power; a statement that brings you accolades in an academic department might bring you hostility in a church.[10] Many different institutions and spiritual principalities in conflict with one another have power and money and many commentators delude themselves into thinking that they are a persecuted minority when both sides are scoring little victories all the time.

A judicious use of the word “racism” will go much farther to cement a movement for real justice than a bunch of heavily-retweeted bromides, and it will make the critique land much more seriously when it is not overused. I won’t police anyone’s choice of language if and when they choose to mourn publicly, but if one truly believes that racial injustice is an urgent issue, we cannot wait for everyone to come around to our particular point of view and use the appropriate terminology as they do. Those of us who want to see racial justice realized have to think strategically about our methods, messaging, and goals.

Now what?

As awareness of the history and legacy of racial injustice has spread, so too has a multiplicity of suggested solutions emerged. Unsurprisingly, many of these solutions are crude lowest-common-denominator initiatives designed to avoid disrupting any meaningful balance of power or make people sacrifice for the sake of justice. These include (but are not limited to) most social media campaigns, most debates about symbols or symbolic representation in elite spaces, implicit bias trainings in the workplace, anything that involves elite college admissions, anything that feels like self-help, Christian movements that emphasize reconciliation to the detriment of justice, firing people whose evidence of racial bias is shaky, statements of solidarity put out by massive brands,[11] and any endeavor that tries to assert that “rational thinking” or “hard work” are white traits.

I think that people mostly do these sorts of things for the same reason that they donate cans of food they don’t want to food banks or send death threats to newspaper columnists: because it makes them feel like they are doing something about a problem that is big and difficult to address. They also function as excellent games for status jockeying among the professional-managerial class and a whetstone for Left Purity Culture. I disavow these and whatever insane misuse of these ideas your favorite blogger has just gotten an email about.

Perhaps the most compelling case against recognizing the validity of claims of racial oppression is that it inevitably leads to these sorts of excesses and the Oppression Slurpee, which to me is about as useful as opposing the idea of sharing the Gospel with others because evangelism has resulted in the Crusades and Chick Tracts. We should more or less expect that any idea that is important enough will attract terrible people to it and that terrible people will then misuse it out of ignorance, malice, greed, misguided zeal, or some combination thereof. We can criticize these excesses and acknowledge the difficulties before us without abandoning the moral and historical claims that have set us on a path that is so difficult to tread.

More challenging is the problem of differentiating kinds and degrees of harm. So many of these controversies erupt because the previously mentioned interactions that produce cultural friction between different people become “microaggressions” when they cannot be separated from the broader power of racism to demean, diminish, and deny people their humanity, beauty, and agency. As bell hooks puts it in Belonging: A Culture of Place, the response to ongoing and legacy effects of oppression are “a pathological fear of whiteness, a fear rooted in unresolved trauma,” that engenders mistrust and hinders our ability to love one another. How these offenses are understood or received is going to vary drastically based on the particular space that one is in; the best that I can say is that people who do not know what it feels like to be a minority should be quick to listen when they are accused of causing an offense and those who do know should say what needs to be said and no more.

More importantly, a lot of the hard work is yet to be done: ending the unjust racial disparities in health, educational outcomes, and economic stability are a necessary part of dealing with the past. Arguing about the method of rectifying these disparities is a debate for another day, but squabbling about other concerns, especially primarily symbolic concerns, is almost guaranteed to hamstring any movement for justice.

If we truly want justice, it is impossible to make good on the promise of America without the sacrifices of those who have accumulated more than their Black neighbor over the past century (which, like it or not, is almost certainly most readers of this essay). And if we want to convince a sufficient number of people that their sacrifice is necessary, we have be clear on what we are asking people to accept: that racial disparities are a result of legacy injustice and active discrimination, and Americans must take action to rectify these problems.

White people must be willing to live with, listen to, and support those who are trying to rebuild after the crimes against the created order that were not only perpetuated but justified by the Church. As Phil Christman says in a much better essay on the subject, “[U]ncompromising cross-racial humanist solidarity is the only road to a truly decent country. Or, believing as I do in original sin, I would reformulate the statement: the degree to which any future America is good is determined by the degree to which this happens.” Debate about how those of us who have received more at our neighbor’s expense ought to make things right all you want; let us do so with the most important reasons why in hand and a common language that persuades rather than purifies.

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  1. In realistic terms, a “nation” could never be any larger than a tri-county area and any “nationalism” more ambitious than this is a bad idea. In Dependent Rational Animals, Alistair Macintyre remarks: “[T]he shared public goods of the modern nation-state are not the common goods of a genuine nation-wide community and, when the nation-state masquerades as the guardian of such a common good, the outcome is bound to be either ludicrous or disastrous or both. For the counterpart to the nation-state thus misconceived as itself a community is a misconception of its citizens as constituting a Volk, a type of collectivity whose bonds are simultaneously to extend to the entire body of citizens and yet to be as binding as the ties of kinship and loyalty. In a modern, large scale nation-state no such collectivity is possible and the pretense that it is is always an ideological disguise for sinister realities.”
  2. There is a lot of interesting discussion in The Christian Imagination about Asian cultures that is still quite relevant for today, but this is beyond the scope of this essay.
  3. There has been a lot of recognition in the last few decades that natural law is less and less comprehensible to the Western mind. Dare I suggest that this lampstand has been taken away because of how deliberately natural law was contravened in the establishment of a racial hierarchy?
  4. This is part of why the term “people of color” has become so popular, but the line between the more commonplace varieties of prejudice and the malignant race-based power/principality gets much blurrier outside of the white/black paradigm. However, because the efforts of white people to promulgate their ideology through colonialism and then globalization, the effects of their schema for racial hierarchy can be found (however minimally) in many different countries across the world.
  5. Polls also suggest that current tactics aren’t convincing Christians to do anything for racial justice besides share memes.
  6. Just ask an Uyghur, a South Sudanese, or a South Asian working in an Arab country.
  7. An earlier version of this essay actually used “atePaERO” in just about every subsequent paragraph, and let me say that I am no Francis Spufford.
  8. Implicit or unconscious bias is a complicated subject, but we can say that 1) people are capable of saying or doing biased, harmful things without realizing it and 2) the industry promulgating solutions to implicit bias is a farce.
  9. Policing and police violence is a prime example of a case where race is incredibly relevant in some ways and not in others. I have tried to analyze it accordingly here, here, here, here, & here.
  10. As bell hooks notes in her book Where We Stand: Class Matters, “class privilege mediates the pain of racial assault.” (p94)
  11. I kid you not, even Pornhub (which, in case you didn’t know, makes an obscene amount of money by mixing racial stereotypes with sexual exploitation) put out a statement in the summer of 2020.

Matthew Loftus

Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at